Remote Learning at its Finest: An Inside Look at a Virtual Reality


A typical day of teaching in a virtual classroom Photo Credit: Jennifer Hindes

Olivia Belrose, Writer

Jennifer Hindes, a teacher in the Missisquoi Valley School District, would normally be reading Warp Speed aloud to her sixth-grade class after lunch. This year, she’s recording read alouds, emailing students during office hours, and teaching math via Google Meet to a class of 14 fully virtual students from around Vermont. 

After finishing 26 years of teaching on a team at Swanton Elementary school, Hindes made the decision to teach on a fully-remote basis due to the health risks of being exposed to Covid-19. 

Since she’s teaching solo this year, Hindes has to plan for math, language arts, civics and science. Her day consists of a lesson plan on Zoom for 30 minutes, where she models the estimation for a series of problems, and then her students go into breakout rooms, where they problem solve and report their conclusions to the class. She says it’s all about trying to teach kids how to work solo and collaboratively by laying out expectations and instruction. How can you turn an in-person classroom into a virtual classroom?

“It’s like putting on a new pair of shoes and breaking them in,” Hindes said. 

Hindes is currently teaching in a self-contained classroom through Vermont Virtual Learning Academy, with a pre-planned curriculum from Florida, where she is responsible for the instruction of multiple subjects and grade levels. Teachers are required to deliver two hours of content per day with additional office hours for student support. Hindes is also teaching a seventh and eighth-grade world history class once a week with 15 students from all over Vermont. 

While every lesson plan and assessment is paced and pre-planned in Google slides, Hindes knows she can’t just push assignments on students without prior instruction. She’s currently guiding students through the content and catching them up with pre-requisite skills even if she has to spend more than two weeks on a lesson.

All classes are pushed out through Canvas, which is similar to Google Classroom, a course-management system that provides students and teachers the ability to access assignments and grades. Maestro, a system similar to Powerschool, is used to house student contact information.

Emmanuel Chippanelli, (‘22,) a student enrolled in Virtual High School this year, made the decision to learn remotely full time this year due to family health concerns and how efficiently he was able to learn online last spring. 

“It’s been good. They really try to create an in-class experience. It’s pretty intuitive, and their system has worked well for me,” Chippanelli said.

While it may not be not perfect, Hindes is finding that students are motivated and they want to learn. Kids are longing for those connections they had with peers. They want to be part of a group. Her goal is to not necessarily get them into a class, but help them connect. 

“I just help them connect with each other and myself.  I’ve found families to be very appreciative when they can put a face to a phone number or an email. I’m not that comfortable in front of a camera, but I have to accept it for what it is because they need to see me. It can’t just be lessons pushed out on a screen with nothing behind it,” Hindes said. 

While Hindes has worked hard to connect with her students and families, students in the Virtual High School program have had minimal interaction with their teachers.

Chippanelli says VHS students are expected to check in once a day for attendance through a class page. Students are then expected to complete a series of note-taking with textbooks and basically work through the content by themselves. If a student is in need of academic assistance, they can email teachers and expect a response within a day. While VHS only requires students to take core academic classes, students are still pretty busy with a heavy workload. For many students, figuring out how to manage their time has been a lingering challenge.

Taylor Reyome (‘22) was also enrolled in Virtual High School after a successful experience with remote learning last spring. Reyome found that she was able to finish all of her school work right away with the most of the week off. However, choosing to learn virtual five days a week was the opposite of what she expected. 

“I would be doing work for seven hours straight and forget to eat food because I was working on the homework so much,” Reyome said. 

In Reyome’s experience, there were no live Zoom meetings, but there were a lot of discussion boards to do that required students to create and reply to other posts from around the world.  

“I was talking to a student from Yemen and giving them feedback on their post,” Reyome said.

Even with good self-direction, time management skills, and the ability to create her own schedule, Reyome felt isolated after spending her entire academic career in person.

Despite posting to discussion boards and working on group projects, students, like Reyome, say the hardest part of learning on a fully-remote basis is the limited collaboration. 

“I really miss the interaction with people I know. I still see people through cross country, but I…miss people I don’t see that often,” Chippanelli said.

While it’s important to help students connect with each other, Hindes also sees the importance in supporting kids at a social, emotional level. “One of my students has been recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and she’s been feeling overwhelmed with school and taking care of herself. She jumped on a Zoom call and we were able to work,” Hindes said. 

Hindes said most of her classes have had 100% attendance. For students who aren’t able to attend a class, she encourages them to sign up together to meet with the teacher. If an absent student doesn’t schedule an appointment, there are coordinators and counselors within the district who can dig into the situation. 

To create a sense of normalcy, Hindes has sent out book orders for her students. In school, students would normally have the opportunity to earn points with a reward of book choices. While it may be different than teaching in-person, Hindes says you have to be creative in building the culture of a classroom community.

While Hindes has enjoyed getting to know her students, she’s had difficulty determining their academic needs as VTVLC requires school districts to write and communicate any academic plans. She is only aware of the accommodations for students from her district.

“I have no idea if my eighth graders are on learning plans because nobody has told me,” Hindes said.

While VTVLC expects schools to initiate learning needs, there is a limited variety of accommodations within the program outside of speech to text and extending quiz dates. Hindes noted this as a result of 20,000 students being enrolled full-time in a program that’s meant for extra courses outside of high school.

Aside from determining students’ learning needs, Hindes is unsure how rubrics will translate onto report cards. While some assignments are given a percentage grade, other assignments only say complete, incomplete or 10/10. Some parents prefer the percentage system, while others want to see a growth model/proficiency model in their child’s learning. 

While many Vermont high schools have, or are in the process of, switching from percentage to proficiencies, students in virtual programs have enjoyed working with percentages again. For students like Chippanelli and Reyome, they don’t necessarily have a preference of one over the other, but they’ve found percentages to be more direct and to the point.

VTVLC has created pace charts for teachers to use in lesson planning but, for Hindes, she’s decided to avoid the pace chart as it limits students from the time they need to learn. In order to have rigorous learning, students need to develop a strong understanding of the material to be successful in future units.

“There’s a fine balance between overwhelming them and not giving them enough,” Hindes said.

While some school districts have created chats for virtual teachers to collaborate with each other, some teachers are totally isolated with limited experience. 

Aside from teaching virtually, VTVLC requires their teachers to complete a nine-credit course. Teachers are expected to create a portfolio with online teaching skills, modules and peer review. 

With or without the pandemic, Hindes says the fully-remote option is better for some students in that it provides flexibility with due dates and work time. Both students and teachers are able to schedule breaks, set boundaries and still work for eight hours. For students who struggle in the normal school setting, virtual learning is a “window of opportunity” for success. 

“In the beginning, I felt like I was building a plane as I was flying it. I’m like a stewardess who finally found the coffee, and now I have to figure out how to use the coffee maker,” Hindes said. The key to teaching remotely is finding ways for kids to connect with each other. They’re longing for that face-to-face connection with their peers. Hindes also noted how important it is to be flexible with both students and parents as both students and teachers make mistakes.